Fleeing Workers May Cripple Libyan Economy

Libya is heavily dependent on foreign labor, and with thousands of foreigners trying to flee the country, Libya's economic future is at grave risk. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Tom Gjelten on the Libya-Tunisia border, where thousands of refugees and evacuees have massed.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Libyas president Moammar Gadhafi remains in power today but a tense standoff continues in Tripoli. The Libyan capital was the scene of another violent confrontation yesterday, as forces loyal to Gadhafi, army soldiers and foreign mercenaries, opened fire on protesters. The government crackdown has prompted international outrage and sanctions.

The United States closed its embassy in Tripoli and announced unilateral sanctions against Libya. The crisis has also prompted thousands of people, mostly foreigners to flee the country.

And coming up, we'll talk to an American teacher who was evacuated from Tripoli by ferry to Malta. Thousands more are trying to flee over land.

We go now to NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hes in Tunisia, near the border with Libya. Tom, thanks for being with us.

GJELTEN: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us what you're seeing, what the situation is.

GJELTEN: A mass of people at the border, Scott. I'd say the latest estimate as of last night were that at least 30,000 people have crossed this border from Libya to Tunisia, many more today. The Tunisian military has been handling this big influx of people and really doing a tremendous job, if I say so. They've set up a camp near the border. But just today when I was up there, for the first time, Scott, I had the feeling that the situation is almost out of control. There were a good thousand men sitting by the side of the road with their suitcases and their blankets waiting to be taken somewhere, having just made it across the border.

The Tunisian military people told me at their camp they've just about reached their capacity. They're getting frustrated, so it's on the verge of being out of control at the border.

SIMON: And who's coming across the border, Tom?

GJELTEN: They're almost entirely non-Libyans, Scott. There have been a few Libyans each day but these are mostly men, almost entirely men and the great, great majority of them are foreigners who are working in Libya. There were a lot of Tunisian, lately a lot of Egyptians. But by far, 99 percent are men and they're almost all foreign workers.

SIMON: Oil industry?

GJELTEN: Oil industry, construction. Libya depends very heavily on foreign workers and, in fact, I've seen estimates that there are 30,000 Tunisians who have been working there, up to 30,000 Chinese, as many as a million Egyptians, Scott, and the vast majority of the people that I saw today were Egyptians. So, it really does raise interesting questions about how the Libyan economy is functioning without all these workers that it has so heavily depended on.

SIMON: Let me get you to expand on that a bit. What are some of the possible repercussions?

GJELTEN: Well, I think that it means, you mentioned the oil industry. We already know that oil production has come to a halt. I think that many of the skilled workers that are needed in the oil industry and in other industries in Libya have been dependent on foreign workers. Everything that we have heard from here suggests that the economy is really paralyzed in Libya, and I think a big part of it is the loss of all these foreign workers on whom Libya has been so dependent.

SIMON: And, Tom, why are there not more Libyans tossing the borders? Is it particularly difficult for them now?

GJELTEN: Well, I think the, you know, it's always hard for people to leave their home country and Libyans feel very strongly about what's going on. I think another reason is that these foreign workers - the Egyptians and Tunisians in particular - complained that they have been really singled out for abuse by the Gadhafi forces. Many, many I've spoken to have stories of bad treatment at the hands of the Gadhafi forces. That has clearly given them an extra incentive to get out of town as quickly as they can.

SIMON: And what have they been able to tell you about what they saw before they left?

GJELTEN: They say that the security situation is very unstable. A lot of Gadhafi forces have set up checkpoints on the road, so they went through many, many checkpoints and were sort of abused at these checkpoints. On the other hand, they say that most of the territory is not under Gadhafis control. In fact, the few kilometers to the border are not under Gadhafis control at all. But there are these irregular checkpoints set up by pro-Gadhafi forces that make the trip to the border very harrowing, Scott.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Gjelten, who's near the Tunisian border with Libya. Thanks so much.

GJELTEN: Youre welcome, Scott.

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